Healthy, unpolluted soils provide ecosystem services and protect human health. Soils can become polluted when high concentrations of contaminants are released from a point source (such as industry, waste, landfills and spills). A recent conservative projection estimates that the EU has 2.8 million potentially contaminated sites. Current efforts to monitor and remediate these sites vary markedly across Member States. Therefore, coherent efforts supported by an EU-wide policy are needed to fill gaps and speed up the identification and management of sites in need of risk reduction measures and remediation.

Figure 1. Potentially contaminated sites in the EU, as registered in national inventories
Potentially contaminated sites in the EU, as registered in national inventories

Contaminated sites release potentially toxic compounds into soil, air and water, and can restrict economic development and decrease property values and the attractiveness of communities. Such sites are often located in urban industrial areas and lower income communities. However, they offer potential for urban re-development through land recycling after remediation.

In 2016, 1.38 million potentially contaminated sites were registered, with 98% of them represented by 11 countries (Eionet revision of 2016 indicator statistics, conducted in 2022). Once a suspected polluting activity has been confirmed, sites are considered 'contaminated sites'; this is currently confirmed for 69% of the potentially contaminated sites. Based on a projected total of 2.8 million sites suspected to be contaminated, at least 2 million would be expected to be registered once comparable national registers are fully developed. However, depending on the assumptions used for projections, the number of sites suspected of being contaminated, can be even larger.

National registers cover contamination from ongoing and historical polluting activities. All Member States monitor emissions from ongoing industrial activities through national implementation of EU policies (e.g. the Seveso Directive, Industrial Emissions Directive, Waste Framework Directive). In contrast to emissions on air and water, contamination on land is currently hardly reported in the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register. The management of historical contamination is also challenging (e.g. brownfields and orphan sites), and this concerns the majority of sites in national registers. In the absence of a dedicated EU soil legislation, the current management of such sites until now depends on national initiatives. The number of countries that report statistics on registered potentially contaminated sites increased from 18 in 2006 to 23 in 2016; however, only 12 have detailed registers. Ten countries either have still not yet developed any national register or consider only a very limited set of polluting activities in their approaches to site management.

Figure 2. Progress in the management of contaminated sites in the EU, total number of recorded remediated sites
Progress in the management of contaminated sites in the EU, total number of recorded remediated sites

In 2016, 115,000 contaminated sites were remediated in the EU, representing 8.3% of the currently registered potentially contaminated sites. Based on current projections, at least 166,000 additional sites are expected to be in need of risk reduction measures or remediation.

Assuming a cost of EUR100,000 for a site to be remediated, a total of EUR16.6 billion would be required to remediate remaining sites. Currently, with existing national implementation structures and funding, countries’ progress in detecting, investigating and remediating contaminated sites varies considerably, from 20 sites/year to 3,000 sites/year. The total numbers of sites under remediation in 2006, 2011 and 2016 were 6,269, 12,073 and 10,539, respectively. In order to remediate all expected contaminated sites, it would take between 10 years (based on the average current remediation rate of 614 sites/year per country) and 47 years (based on a median remediation rate per country of 129 sites/year).

Current knowledge of the content of national contaminated site registers is based on various Eionet questionnaires (2001-2006, 2011, 2016), with information about polluting activities and substances collected only in 2011. The methodology used to monitor progress in the management of contaminated sites is based on six site statuses.